How NOT to Write: Tackling too much!

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!


This week we deal with a problem on the other end of the spectrum from the previous.  Last time we talked about, essentially, students who are slackers (and often see no problem with that).  This time we’re looking at an error that writers who are trying to excel fall into all too often:   trying to fit far too much into too little space/time.  It all gets down to planning.

Sometimes, this really is the problem that the rest of us only wish we had!  There are times when our ideas simply outstrip the capacity of our perceived outlets.  We have so many things we want/need to express that we try to cram them all in at once anyway.  I graded a graduate essay like this recently.  The student had a slew of great points to make about his topic.  What resulted was a paper that really would have made several good chapters in a thesis or dissertation.  He bounced from well-written topic to well-written topic so quickly that he never had time to say anything substantial about any one of them.  Worse, the topics were far bigger than his thesis could contain.  That resulted in him regularly veering off course and losing focus.

Other times students are afraid that they won’t have enough to say and so, to compensate, they choose a gigantic topic that they couldn’t treat properly in 500 pages let alone 15.  Given, this sometimes gets down to poor titling–if your paper is about the Cuban Missile Crisis don’t call it “The Cold War”–but as often as not it is just poor planning.  Students who take this approach often end up with nothing substantial to say.  It is physically impossible for them to fit what they need to discuss into the space that they have and so they use themselves up with either vague generalities or a wad of disconnected points of brilliance, the sum of which is often simple nonsense.

The truth is that anyone can write a paper of any length on any general topic, if only he/she has the wisdom to identify how big of a chunk to bite off of it.  For longer projects, you broaden your scope (i.e. Confederate diplomacy in the Civil War), for shorter ones you narrow it down to something manageable (i.e. Confederate diplomacy in Britain) and from there on down depending on the length allowed (i.e. Confederate diplomacy in the Trent Affair; John Slidell in the Trent Affair, etc.).  A further winnowing comes when you begin to consider what facts you need to include in order to actually make your point–but we’ll cover that next week when we talk about a thesis.

What does all this have to do with writing fiction?  This is an essential skill for any author, especially because, as you progress as a writer, it is the shorter pieces that you will find more difficult.  Anyone who can string words together can usually come up with something worth saying if you let him/her ramble on for long enough.  Saying something substantial in 1500 (or even 500) words is much more difficult.  Every syllable must count.  Telling the story of an entire world in 300,000 words is one thing.  Doing it in, say, 60,000 is quite another (if, for instance, you’re aiming at younger readers and you aren’t J. K. Rowling).  Even Tolkien had to consider this, resulting in the break up of the Lord of the Rings into the three volumes we know today.  Short stories can quickly become novellas then novelettes then books and then we forget who we were writing it all to in the first place.

The process for heading this off in fiction is very similar to what I discussed above.  It all begins with a little planning.  You must begin with a clear idea of your topic (i.e. the basic point of your story–what do you want people to get from it?).  You then think through the arc of your story and chart the basics of where you want it to go and ask some simple questions:  How long will the story be?  Can you realistically fit it into the space that you’ve set for yourself?  If not, how will you divide it into those more “manageable chunks” we discussed?  What organizational scheme should you use?  Write all of this down in a file or a notebook.  I would even consider charting some of it out visually.  The more of it you record, the less chance you have of forgetting any of it!

Of course, there are times that you’ll want to throw caution to the wind!  If your purpose is to confuse/befuddle/overwhelm your reader, then cramming too much information in to too small a space is one good way to do it.  You can also create an effect of confusion and disorientation by jumping from point-to-point-to-point in a plot that it too complex to reasonably express in so short a space.  The key is to do so in a controlled, intentional fashion.  If it ever gets out of hand, you’ll lose your reader and your method will have officially become a liability.  Also, if you feel a moment of inspiration coming upon you don’t hold back!  Write it all down and sort it out later.

In the end, you can, of course, just dive into your project with abandon and no proper sense of purpose, but that will often result in more frustration than it does creativity.  After all, we want to spend as much time in the “creating” as possible, and as little as we can on cleaning up.

Next Week:  The thesis and other forgotten arts.


More in the How NOT to Write series:

6 thoughts on “How NOT to Write: Tackling too much!

  1. Yes! Narrow the topic, narrow it, narrow it, narrow it, and when you think you have narrowed it enough, narrow it some more. One advantage is that it forces you to get specific. You can write meaningless generalities about Confederate diplomacy, but if you have to write about one meeting between one specific ambassador and one British MP on one day in 1863, you are forced to find some actual facts. Failure to understand this is (after general grammatical incompetence) the greatest source of failure in the research papers I grade. And if we get used to spouting meaningless generalities about history or other people’s literature, then we will do the same in describing our own worlds. One piece of advice I give fiction writers more than any other is, “Don’t tell me–show me.” If you can do it with the Confederate ambassador, you will be able do it with your characters too.

    1. I think this has to do with the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality we talked about last week. Some people are so used to be told that every little thought that pops in their head is so profound and worthwhile that they forget they have to actually WORK to say something significant. Why do real research when you can get by with generalities from the encyclopedia? Especially when you’ve been told that is A work all along?

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